One of the best things about visiting Japan is the chance to experience a natural hot spring, or onsen. Because of Japan’s seismic activity, the country has approximately 2,500 onsens nationwide. Most Japan ski resort areas such as Niseko and Hakuba have anywhere from 10 – 20 onsens nearby!
What is an onsen?
An onsen is a Japanese hot spring whose waters come from underground geothermally heated pools. To be classified as a true onsen, the water must include a certain amount of designated naturally occurring chemical elements and be a very specific temperature. The waters are said to have many health benefits such as increasing blood circulation, stress reduction and pain relief.
Is an onsen the same as a sento?
A sento – or bathhouse – differs from an onsen in one way: the water in a sento is regular hot water. Communal neighbourhood bathhouses exist all over Japan and originate from a time when very few Japanese houses had indoor private bathrooms.
A rotenburo is an outdoor, or open-air hot spring onsen bath. Often onsens will have separate indoor and outdoor areas. There is nothing quite like an outdoor onsen experience, especially in the wintertime with large snowflakes falling, and the chance to gaze out upon the beautiful Japanese wintery scenery!
Ashiyu (foot onsen) exist all throughout Japan, mostly on street corners of hot spring areas, and are mostly free. Only the feet up to the knees are meant to be submerged in an ashiyu.
How to use an onsen
Visiting an onsen for the first time can be a bit of an intimidating experience. But if you know what to expect, you can be prepared and know exactly what to do to jump right in (only figuratively of course!).
If you are visiting a stand-alone onsen or one located inside a hotel, there will be two ‘doorways’ leading off from the main entrance, one for each gender. Each will have either a red noren curtain (women’s entry) or a blue noren curtain (men’s entry). Through this curtain will be where the changerooms are located. This is where you will disrobe and leave your clothes in lockers or cubbies. Once you disrobe completely, you then go through another doorway into the actual onsen bath area.
On the perimeter or surrounding the bath there will be little stools facing individual shower areas where you will sit and wash completely from top to bottom before entering the onsen waters. Usually soap and shampoo is provided. Once you are finished with your bath, use the small towel to dry off excess water from your body before going back into the change room.
ONSEN ETIQUETTE / JAPANESE ONSEN RULES
Japanese onsen rules tend to be quite uniform across the country. Most onsens will have these rules posted outside the building and inside the change rooms. The rules below are fairly standard and will apply to virtually all onsens you visit:
You must disrobe completely to enter an onsen bath. No bathing suits or underwear is allowed.
Wash before entering
You must wash with soap and water before entering the bath. Onsen water is meant to be free of any impurities like soaps, shampoos, and dirt.
You are allowed to bring a small hand towel (or “modesty” towel) in with you to the onsen area. Often these towels are sold in vending machines in the onsen lobby, or you can bring your own. This towel must not touch the water. You can place it off to the side of the bath, or on top of your head. Use this towel to wipe yourself down before reentering the change room.
Likewise, hair must not touch the onsen waters. Place long hair on top of your head, or tie it up.
Male and Female
Traditionally, onsens are separated into a men’s and a women’s area. Small children under a certain age are permitted to accompany their parents regardless of gender. Men must stay on the men’s side and women on the women’s side. There are a small handful of mixed gender onsen, though these are certainly the exception.
Don’t be rowdy
Onsens can be a social place, where groups of friends sit and chat. However, onsens are primarily meant for relaxation and loud voices or rowdiness will not be tolerated.
Traditionally people with tattoos are not permitted to enter onsen waters. Because of the historical association with Japanese organized crime (yakuza), tattoos are considered to be taboo, and offensive to the public. Things are slowly starting to change (especially in more international resort areas such as Niseko and Hakuba), and some onsens will now permit people with tattoos, especially if they are able to cover them up easily. However, the majority of onsens will still refuse entry to those with tattoos, especially if the tattoos are large or conspicuous. Check in advance about the particular onsen’s policy on tattoos.
Typically it is not permitted to take photos while inside an onsen, unless you are visiting a private onsen.
Be sure to check out our Niseko and Hakuba onsen guides for a list of our top 10 in each area!